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Branding without brands: 3 success stories

Branding without brands: 3 success stories Adam Broitman

All successful brands tell a story. Apple tells us a story about people who "think different." Pepsi tells us the tale of a new generation and Disney tells a story about imagination and childhood. These are classic American brand stories -- cultivated through traditional channels and originated (to a large degree) by the brands themselves.

This is the way the world used to work. There is, however, a new world order when it comes to brand storytelling.

The notion that brand managers ever had total control over how their brands were perceived is a farce. Still, there was a time when brand managers had a greater degree of control. The rise of social computing and other emerging channels has led to the origination of brand lore in the most unlikely places. "Dell Hell" was not a story cooked up in the offices of Dell -- it originated on a blog. On the flip side, tales of remarkable yet atypical customer service performed by Zappos employees would have been less effective if spread solely by the mouths of Zappos execs. These exceptional yarns were spun (again, to a large degree) by consumers and then amplified by mainstream media (with a little help from Zappos PR, of course).

The bottom line is that brands have less control than ever before -- but that does not make them powerless. Creative strategies can get brands in front of audiences that were previously unreachable, and in a way that could endear consumers to a brand like never before. Brands do not always have to be front and center for an initiative to have an impact. In fact, sometimes it is best if a brand is not front and center. This allows consumers to tell stories to other consumers. And at a time when consumer belief in advertising is at an all-time low, C to C marketing is essential.

This article outlines three creative interactive marketing strategies that invoke consumers to talk to other consumers about brands, with minimal interference from the brand itself.

Say you saw me (handsome bald man) at a party standing all alone (not that that would ever happen). Whether positive or negative, memorable or easily forgotten, you would have some sort of impression of me. If, at the same party, I was standing next to Tiger Woods, your perception of me would be much different.

Marketers have tapped into the power of star equity for a long time. But in an age in which Andy Warhol's vision (that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes) has become a reality, there are more creative (and potentially more effective, not to mention less expensive) ways to effectively align your brand than simply writing a large check to a celebrity. One way is to align your brand with a consumer group that represents a lucrative segment for your brand.

A few months ago, Dell created a social, or conversational, hub called Digital Nomads. Dell describes the initiative in the following way:

"Digital Nomads is a community site for individuals that work or play without regard for their physical location. It is a place where they can come together to read about other digital nomads, share ideas, tips and tricks and best practices, and read the latest nomad-oriented news. Digital Nomads live a lifestyle where their laptop and other electronic devices create the center of their office and/or play-space."

Given the nature of the technology employed by the so-called digital nomad, it should come as no surprise that this consumer segment is important to Dell. By employing a tactic referred to as crowdsourcing, Dell aimed to tap into the collective intelligence of a very specific market segment and engage members of this segment to have conversations with one another. As a result, Dell was able to align its brand with this group. One striking element of this initiative is the fact that there is very little branding from Dell. In fact, the homepage has only one -- very small -- explicit mention of the brand, and this mention is at the bottom of the page, located in the footer.

The initiative's conversation extends beyond the confines of the DigitalNomads.com to employ a distributed web strategy that spans various social networks.

Dell has kept its brand presence sparse at all digital touchpoints. Those wishing to know who is behind the initiative should have no problem finding out who it is; Dell has, by no means, hidden its involvement in this initiative. By fostering a relevant conversation among consumers, Dell has neatly positioned the brand in the conversation, without appearing to control the conversation. By remaining at arm's length, Dell is allowing consumers to tell and hear stories about digital nomads from "people like themselves." It is likely that most consumers will include Dell as a footnote (if not more) when telling this story.

A demonic force has entered the world of marketing. This underhanded, nefarious force is known as dark marketing, and it is threatening to take down the entire marketing industry as we know it!

Okay, maybe none of that is true -- but the phenomenon, dubbed dark marketing, has been getting some attention lately. Wired defines dark marketing as, "Discreetly sponsored online and real-world entertainment intended to reach hipster audiences that would ordinarily shun corporate shilling." Wired then references an incredibly creative initiative developed by AKQA for McDonald's called The Lost Ring.

The Lost Ring was an alternate reality game (ARG) that aimed to engage consumers who tend to be hard to reach through traditional means. This transmedia expose had gamers and bloggers (as well as a variety of consumers who live on the fringes of pop culture) seeking clues in order to unlock a mystery of epic proportions. It would take too long to review all the finer points of this initiative in this article (you can watch and read more about it on the site), as this multifaceted game blurred the lines between the real world and the digital world, weaving in and out of various types of media.

It is safe to say the game was effective, as consumers across the world were deeply engaged in The Lost Ring for nearly six months. From a marketing perspective, one of the most interesting elements of this initiative was the fact that The Lost Ring's creator, McDonald's, was barely present. McDonald's took a back seat and let the participants of the game tell the story. I don't have concrete evidence that McDonalds yielded a positive ROI from The Lost Ring; however, there are a number of factors that make this initiative appear to have been a success:

Extensive press

Valuable media impressions created by consumers

These are just a few examples of the buzz The Lost Ring created, and it is hard to talk about this campaign without referencing McDonald's involvement. McDonald's created an experience for consumers that could only have left them with a feeling of gratitude toward the brand.

Have you ever been brought to a party by a friend, only to be whisked away by the trappings of all the other interesting people at the party? At the end of the party you realize that, although you did not spend a great deal of time with the person that brought you, you owe them a debt of gratitude for introducing you to a valuable experience.

Brands often create marketing initiatives where value is offered to consumers (e.g., coupons, services, etc.), but the traditional way tends to ensure the brand is positioned at the center of the value exchange. This type of overbearing brand presence is not essential.

Denny's recently created a very unique online campaign involving content that is not necessarily endemic to the brand. The name of the campaign is Denny's Allnighter, and one very compelling element of the campaign is Denny's Adopt-a-Band. The initiative is described in the following way:

"At a time when touring costs are high, Denny's is here to help. Through the 'Adopt-a-Band' program, Denny's sponsors bands to eat for free and host after parties at local Denny's Restaurants while on the road. Get to know all of the current Adopted Bands below, and check out their tour dates to see when you can go see them and hit up your local Denny's for late-night food and fun!"

Of the three initiatives mentioned in this article, this is the most heavily branded; however, the branding is not overbearing. Three times a month, bands are expected to write about Denny's, as well as post photos of themselves in a Denny's. While Denny's wants to ensure it is involved in the conversation, the value it is providing for musicians and music fans is tremendous. Denny's has found a way to weave its brand into a lifestyle it is trying to target, adding value at each turn.

Had Denny's forced its way into the conversation through contrived situations, this initiative may not have been a success. But instead, Denny's simply seeded a conversation by adding value to a specific demographic. The company then took a backseat and let consumers complete the story.

Actions often speak louder than words. At a time when markets are saturated with vacuous brand catchphrases, jingles and other useless banter, brands need to do a better job of communicating with consumers. The plethora of new media channels that have emerged over the last 10 years should leave no marketer feeling like he or she cannot effectively get branded messages across to consumers. The proliferation of new media channels may be overwhelming, but through creative media strategies, marketers can communicate more efficiently than ever before -- without shoving messages down consumers' throats.

Adam Broitman is strategy director/ringleader at Crayon.

Recognized by iMedia’s top 25 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, Broitman is known for devising effective creative strategies that live at the cross section of technology and marketing. As Vice President and Senior Business Leader of...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Gabriel Rossi

2008, December 19

Very good article Adam!

The basic principles of branding haven't changed at all with social media. In fact, they have been magnified! Therefore, although every brand should consider a digital strategy, it is vital for them to consider everything that generates and influences word of mouth. I'm talking about costumer service, speed of feedback, product quality, authenticity etc...

Yes, consumers have much more leverage than ever before. However, marketers still have more control than they often argue. By choosing the message and the media, hiring (performance), developing the products, marketers still influence decisively all the 'talk drivers'. Costumers tend to amplify their emotions on-line.


Gabriel Rossi- Brazil

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2008, December 17

Let me start by responding to your first point, "how many people even knew that McDonalds was behind it”

I think that the key here is not how many people knew, but how deeply did it affect the people that did know. It comes back to the old, "impressions versus relationships” debate. My guess is, not that many people knew about it, but the right people knew (and the right people in this case are hard to reach), and were deeply impacted.

Your second point is about impact. My feeling is, unlike a witty 30 second spot, these efforts draw people into to something that is unforgettably valuable. So much so that, there is a feeling of gratitude towards the brand that is not achieved via a television spot. That gratitude is what lives on in people's minds, and ultimately creates a lasting association.

My hope is someone from one of these brands is listening (RichardatDell) and will step in and give us some insight.

Commenter: Krista Neher

2008, December 17


Great articles with interesting examples. I have to wonder what the ROI was for these programs. For example the McDonalds program generated a lot of buzz online, however I didn't see any mention of McDonalds on any of the user generated content. While the program generated a lot of buzz I would wonder how many people even knew that McDonalds was behind it.

Many of the most entertaining TV commercials have great recall for the ad (ie. people remember the commercial because it was funny) but low brand association (people have no idea who the heck made it) and therefore don't generate sales. That being said there can potentially be equity or awareness benefits depending on the level of branding.

Intriguing article - it's great to see brands trying new things :) I'd LOVE to know what the results were on these campaigns... put my cynical mind to rest :)

- Krista